It’s a cool, sunny morning when we meet with Matt Radcliffe, Springs Ensemble Theatre president, in the building that served as home for 13 years. The former foyer, workshop and theater spaces at the East Cache La Poudre Street location now serve as storage areas for every obscure piece of equipment collected and hung onto.
“I’m feeling excited about the future, I’m optimistic for the community, [but] I’m a bit disappointed that we have to leave this space,” he says. “So, you know, mixed emotions.”
Radcliffe, who has been a member of SET since 2014 and president since 2018, was now overseeing the dismantling of the intimate black box theater. He says their new home, the speakeasy at the back of The Fifty-Niner in Old Colorado City, will be ready for the new season.
But the new location is a double-edged sword for SET and the community at large.
On the one hand, SET will be better served situated directly across from Bancroft Park in a slice of town with a well-defined arts community and rows of galleries and shops. On the other, despite the isolated location in a quiet residential neighborhood in the middle of Colorado Springs, the city is losing a long-time performance venue outside the vaunted Avenue Creative Conduit between Manitou Springs and Downtown Colorado Springs.
Radcliffe says, “One of the things I hear too often from people coming through the door to see a show is, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know that Springs Ensemble Theatre existed, how long you’ve been around?’ And then I have to say, ‘13 years.’”
While SET had a gut feeling about the potential move, putting out feelers in advance (SET member Adam Stepan, who recently starred in a production of The Burn, owns The Fifty-Niner), it was still a shock when the landlord served them with a notice to vacate. The company had a final show in its season, The Boys in the Band, and the landlord wouldn’t let them finish it out in the company’s long-held space. (That production will be performed at another venue, but Radcliffe was unable to disclose which one by press time.)
Like other smaller community theater groups that feature volunteer actors and younger players, SET has always faced space insecurity due to not owning its venue. Radcliffe points to the Star Bar Players, a long-running theater group that performed in City Auditorium until it disbanded over rising rent costs, Counterweight Theatre Lab, which has scaled back the number of their shows, and THEATREdART, which has switched formats to become a more promenade/immersive theater.
I’m a bit disappointed that we have to leave this space.”
— Matt Radcliffe
While the pandemic and subsequent inflation have made things economically difficult for many groups, Radcliffe paints a picture of the local performance arts scene riding economic waves that last years or decades. After the 2008 recession depreciated land values and slashed rents, groups like SET and the Millibo Art Theatre were able to move into new spaces and be more innovative with their productions.
“It’s just one of those things where unless we get big money donations, or we get landlords that are willing to be more generous with rent offerings or with space letting, this is going to continue to be a problem,” Radcliffe says.
But SET and others can’t wait on large economic downturns to lower their monthly bills, so what else can they do?
“That’s a big question… a big, big, big question. I think there is more that the county and city politicians can do to deliberately support the arts. If you look at the recent election we had, very few of the [candidates] mentioned a thriving arts scene.”
SET’s sudden move should sound an alarm bell in the community about more bad things to come, but in Radcliffe’s view, the arts scene isn’t completely without help from local governments.
“I do want to say that the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services office does a pretty good job of allocating resources and helping build things with things like the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax fund, but I think there is opportunity for more growth there.”
For now, as we tour their transformed space, Radcliffe and SET are confident they have a way forward and the means to get there.
“Right now, we’re in this kind of dark place and the only way out of that is through,” he says.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a misspelling.